Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Prison Protests in Georgia

Anger at government backtracking on pledge to review past convictions.
By Tinatin Jvania
  • Georgia's justice minister Tea Tsulukiani. (Photo: Georgian justice ministry).
    Georgia's justice minister Tea Tsulukiani. (Photo: Georgian justice ministry).

A mass hunger strike has broken out in Georgian prisons in protest against delays to a planned review of verdicts passed while the last government was in power.

Prisons minister Sozar Saburi told journalists that around 1,100 inmates were on hunger strike by December 18.

At the Geguti prison, he said, over 900 inmates were demanding that the review commission come into being, and also that it should cover a wider range of offences than is currently envisaged, for to take in drugs and organised crime.

The following day, December 19, Saburi’s ministry announced that 52 inmates at a women’s prison were refusing food.

The hunger strikers are angry that the Georgian Dream coalition government has failed to deliver on a promise to redress unfair verdicts passed under the last administration, which it ousted in an October 2012 election.

The pledge reflected widespread concerns about the way the justice system operated during the nine years that President Mikheil Saakashvili and his team were in power. At some points, only about one in 1,000 prosecutions were ended with an acquittal.

At the start of 2013, the justice ministry produced a bill setting out the commission’s mandate. It was to look into verdicts passed in serious crime cases as well as in civil lawsuits involving large sums of money. Its recommendations would then go to a special Supreme Court body for final review.

Tamar Avaliani, of the non-government Human Rights Centre, said prosecutors had received more than 3,000 allegations of torture, inhumane treatment, and other breaches of the law.

“Our lawyers have represented many of these people, and the main question they ask is… when the commission will be created,” she told IWPR.

In November, however, the government postponed work to set up the commission, not because it had a change of heart on the justice issues but because it said it did not have the money to pay out in compensation for wrongful conviction.

Speaking on November 28, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said the bill had been discussed at a cabinet meeting at which “no one was opposed to creating a commission”. Instead, she said, ministers decided it was “premature” to act on it at this point.

The reason, she said, was that “if someone is pardoned, they will have the right to bring a compensation case to court. Given the economic and financial position our country is in today, we are not prepared for this.”

The decision, and the reasons given for making it, provoked fury.

In an open letter which female prisoners sent to Georgia’s leaders before they announced a hunger strike, they wrote, “We understand that the [government] budget may not be in a position to cope with compensation demands made by prisoners who are released, but we believe it is an even greater injustice to leave them in prison.”

Georgia’s official human rights ombudsman, Ucha Nanuashvili, took a similar position.

“Lack of funds cannot stand as an argument against the legitimate expectations of hundreds of people who believe they have been illegally deprived of their freedom because of procedural violations, by being made to buy their freedom [pay bribes], or being forced through inhumane treatment to incriminate themselves or others,” he said in a statement.

The ombudsman said the government should be able to come up with a mechanism that would allow it to phase compensation payments over time so that they would not be an excessive burden.

Tamar Gabisonia, who heads an organisation called Article 42 – a reference to the article in the constitution covering the justice system – said it was absurd to refuse to release people on grounds of cost.

“The public has spent 18 months expecting this government to right the injustices that went on… for nine years, and which are acknowledged by the government, NGOs and international organisations,” she said. “The government promised people that it would correct this. It must see things through and create an effective mechanism for restorative justice.”

Justice Minister Tsulukiani denied that the government had gone back on its word.

“We haven’t rejected the idea. How could anyone reject it when there are so many unfair convictions that need to be reviewed? The process has been is halted temporarily because a financial assessment is needed,” she told reporters.

Tinatin Jvania is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.